Skip to main content

Penny Collenette, a former senior fellow at the Kennedy School of Government and former director of appointments in the Prime Minister's Office under Jean Chrétien, is an adjunct professor in the University of Ottawa's faculty of law

Imagine you have just been elected Prime Minister of Canada. You are the son of a former prime minister. You decide to travel with family and friends to another friend's private island for a Christmas vacation in spite of the fact that you have been elected to Parliament since 2008 and would know that generally, gifts to public office holders are a no-no.

You don't check with the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner. However, you believe that if there were any future questions, an exemption under the Conflict of Interest Act for gifts from friends or relatives should cover you. But it somehow escapes you and your staff that the friend in question has a foundation that is registered to lobby both the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office.

So, off you go. Hopefully, everyone had a good time because a year later, everyone, especially the Prime Minister, is having a really bad time.

Following a damning report by the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has found himself apologizing for unprecedented ethical violations dating back to that now infamous family and friends trip to a private island owned by the highly respected Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims.

The exhaustive 66-page report is almost embarrassingly detailed, outlining conversations, e-mails and letters including birthday greetings between the PM and the Aga Khan. But are they really friends? The Prime Minister certainly believes so.

However, the concept of a friendship can change if you are a public-office holder. If a friend wants something from the government, the original relationship can pivot from personal to professional, requiring the lens of an ethical and legal perspective if there are concerns.

The Aga Khan, a global figure who is also an Order of Canada recipient, is the founder and chair of the board of directors of the Aga Khan Development Network, the Aga Khan Foundation (Canada) and the Global Centre for Pluralism.

Importantly for the vacation scenario, his foundation was registered to lobby the government for the purposes of obtaining an outstanding $15-million grant for the endowment fund to his Centre. Additionally, he was interested in potential funding of a riverfront renewal master plan project in the National Capital Region.

In his written submission to the Commissioner, the Aga Khan noted that he "had a personal relationship with Justin Trudeau and his family as do his eldest children …which evolved as Trudeau matured and had a family of his own."

But the Commissioner, who answers to Parliament and not to the Prime Minister, saw a "warm relationship" but not a friendship that would warrant an exemption to the Act.

In a cogent analysis, she noted that Mr. Trudeau's connection with the Aga Khan was really "rooted in friendship" through his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Furthermore, there had not been any "private interactions" between Justin Trudeau and the Aga Khan for more than 30 years. She felt that the relationship would not have developed if Mr. Trudeau had "not become a significant player on the Canadian political scene."

In other words, the relationship was more professional than a personal friendship. Therefore by accepting the gift of the vacation, the Prime Minister was in violation of the Act.

To make matters worse, the Prime Minister had neglected to recuse himself from certain discussions, resulting in another violation. The fact that the foundation was charitable and non-commercial did not sway the Commissioner because there was "clearly a pecuniary interest benefiting the Global Centre for Pluralism."

Finally, there were not any exceptional circumstances to justify the use of the Aga Khan's private helicopter nor was there an attempt to seek approval for its use beforehand.

Facing four violations of the Act, the Prime Minister moved quickly to mitigate the situation. He has apologized publicly; he has taken full responsibility and he says it won't happen again. If there is any silver lining for his caucus and Cabinet colleagues, the report notes that "there is no allegation that Mr. Trudeau … had the opportunity to further his own private interests or those of a relative."

The report is not politically fatal, but it dramatically highlights a self-inflicted integrity wound that must personally sting the Prime Minister. It is also a lesson for any future prime minister. Like it or not, governing is often a lonely occupation. It's definitely not a game of friends.

Justin Trudeau is apologizing after the federal ethics commissioner found the Prime Minister broke conflict of interest rules when he vacationed at an island owned by the Aga Khan. Trudeau says he'll take “all precautions” in the future.

The Canadian Press